2021 Honda Odyssey Elite Review
Can a minivan be desirable?
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
Minivans have never been a vehicle you truly desire. Nobody wants a minivan; you 'acquire' one because frankly, you have to. Minivan sales have stalled on the whole in the past few years thanks to the rise of the crossover pretend-SUVs, but still persist for the right customers who want the most space possible. You can't fault the crossover, though, being better to look at and (mostly) better to drive. There's also that stigma and lack of coolness associated with these people-carriers that's hard to shake. So let's see what the pinnacle of Honda's long-serving and best-selling Odyssey has to offer the world in its quest for minivans to remain relevant.
For starters, it's absolutely enormous both inside and outside. I swear my friend's mom's old 90s Nissan Quest was at least 2 feet shorter, but somehow the Odyssey is less than 10 inches longer and only 4 inches wider at 203 x78 inches, but gigantic inside in comparison. Kudos to engineers on maximizing the dimensions to their fullest extent. The cabin is larger than some New York apartments, and the front two rows are quite comfortable with expectedly lounge-like leg space. The third row is okay, but far better than comparable crossover SUVs as an adult can occupy it without misery.
The second-row captain chairs slide side-to-side (MagicSlide) and do fold, but not completely flat like a Pacifica. They can be removed, however, leaving enough room for a dance party. The third row does fold and disappears entirely in as little as 2 seconds thanks to a handy pull design. With those folded flat, cargo volume is quite impressive. The space and the associated practicality are the main selling points of the minivan, and the Odyssey excels in both areas with aplomb. Unfortunately, the Odyssey does not do so well in other areas, which came as a surprise given Honda's typical consistency in their product.
The engine is a large and naturally-aspirated 3.5L V6 that revs strongly all the way to the redline as it makes 280 horsepower. 0-60 MPH is dusted in just under 7 seconds and makes the big Honda feel impresively fleet when flattening your right foot, more exhibited by the swift 3.5 second 50-70 MPH passing pull. The engine is smooth and makes a good noise, too, unlike small and grainy four-cylinders. With that power though, the Honda contains and unrestrained throttle, ones that's too sensitive and would cause wheelspin pulling away from a stop (it is front-wheel drive only). I was surprised that the traction control would let this happen as I'm sure it would freak out most moms. Luckily, there was very little torque steer after that, but odd to experience tires spinning so easily.
In contrast to the V6's smooth nature, the 10-speed automatic regularly showed some minor clunkiness, with noticeable shifts in every gear. Switching from drive to reverse and back also gave some shudders. The 9-speed unit in the last Pilot I tried didn't do any of this. Maybe car journos doing 0-60 launches hasn't helped. This is a Honda, though, and Hondas have built a reputation for their stout ability to keep performing. We've all heard stories of those with old Accords that they'd change the oil once every 50,000 miles or even more, and they just kept going and going.
Cruise control also had odd behavior. On its own, set at 72, and with no cars in front, the Odyssey would easily lose up to 5 MPH on downhill to uphill transitions. So it'd lose it at the bottom and then have to reaccelerate up the hill; I'm sure that doesn't help economy. I found this so annoying that I decided to not use cruise control to avoid the deployed parachute effect. Also, if cars were following behind, they'd get on your rear like they're using the Odyssey's boot as a scratch and sniff card as it slows.
On flat, level freeway at 71 MPH, the Odyssey did return a stellar 30 MPG average. My average was only 23 in mixed driving on mostly country roads. Not bad for a big capacity V6 and a vehicle this vast, but the new hybrids from Toyota's new Sienna and Chrysler's Pacifica promise to return considerably more on the combined rating. However, they lack the punchy character of the Honda's V6. Though, it must be said, I think most minivan customers are chasing practicality, and economy is more practical than performance in a minivan.
Let's head back inside that enormous cabin. This Elite model represents the best Odyssey you can buy, featuring all the bells and whistles and screens you could want. The rear occupants have a folding down TV albeit with only the screen size of an iPhone Max. There are accompanying headphones (there's a speaker system that allows the driver to talk to those wearing the headphones which is clever) to go with, but are rather large and cumbersome compared to small ear buds. But, the TV screen looks 15 years old, and most parents are giving kids iPads these days anyways so I'm not sure I see the point of the rear screen anymore. Besides, it also means there's no room for a large panoramic sunroof that would be much more enjoyable for everyone.
The infotainment system up front, besides radio and navigation, also let's you monitor the rear seats via a camera system. Cool to show your friends, but in practice, really? Are your kids that ill-behaved as to need to watch them on camera during a drive? Talk about distracting for the driver. I think it's more a selling point type of gimmick than something to be taken seriously. Maybe some will love the idea, but I just don't quite see the necessity. Maybe if I had kids of my own then my opinion would change on the matter.
Because this an Elite, and there's no easy way to say this, but it costs an eye-rubbing $49,335 as it sits. As such, you'd expect the inside space to be properly luxurious for an expensive Honda, but it mostly just feels like an expensive Honda. The leather is decent and most things are well-padded and soft, but this isn't a fifty grand interior. I felt the same way about the Honda Pilot. Also, the radio/infotainment screen is small with too many onscreen buttons that make using it less than easy. We might have crossed another year into the 2020s, but the Odyssey can't escape from feeling very much last decade.
Can't forget the looks as this is a minivan, of which the styling of minivans are a main reason for their derision. While the shape has gained sharper creases to increase tension, it still looks like a minivan, which means it kind of resembles a potato. But then again, as far as minivans go, it does look rather taut. A minivan starts its life as a rectangle, so to have some character in the design and flow to it is nice.
On the road, the Odyssey drives just fine and simply adequate. There's no real eagerness for corners, but then why should it; it's a minivan. On tight corners of a favorite back road, the minivan displayed better balance than expected, but the tires gave up grip early, so don't get overly ambitious with corner speeds. For what it's worth, though, I reckon I could enter the Odyssey at a track day in an intermediate group and not be the slowest on the track.
I did find the steering to wander a bit at 70 MPH and the lane assistant driving aid made it even worse, causing it to veer towards exits multiple times. That was turned off permanently. I also received multiple warnings while driving by parked cars that I was no way close to hitting; also annoying.
Ride quality is exemplary, making speedbumps vanish, so that was quite nice. Wind noise is a mixed bag, though. Normal road and wind noise was okay, but at speed, there was a low-frequency rumbling that sounded like buffeting that would rear its ugly head. I found myself checking for a cracked window multiple times, but the buffeting persisted on the highway. I don't know how that passed the wind tunnel tests, and I wasn't crazy, as my passengers heard it, too. Of course, being a family-centric vehicle, it's a top safety pick with 5 star crash ratings and all the obligatory safety equipment onboard.
With so many crossovers and SUVs available now, I'm not sure why you'd choose a minivan. I'm also a single male adult in his 20s with no kids, the exact opposite of a potential minivan buyer. At this Honda's high asking price, you'd have to conscientiously choose it over so many other options, and in many cases, you're paying more for a minivan. The Odyssey is the best-selling in the segment currently, and has been for a staggering 10 years running with incredible loyalty, but unless you have lots of kids, that's literally the only reason I can think of why you'd want a minivan. And even then, nobody wants a minivan, you only need a minivan. With Toyota's new Sienna out now with edgy looks inside and out, all-wheel drive, and with hybridization promising 10 MPG more overall, the Odyssey will need to do more to keep its lead in the people-carrier segment. As far as living with the minivan for a week and experiencing just how large it is on the inside, if you need the space, and I mean really need it for kids and such, no SUV comes close to the volume a minivan like the Odyssey offers.
2021 Honda Odyssey Elite
As-Tested Price: $49,335
The Road Beat Rating: 3/5
Pros: Enormous space and practicality, gutsy V6
Cons: Unexciting to drive, cruise control issues, interior lacks pizzazz.
Verdict: The most practical vehicle you can buy, just a boring one.